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Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind
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Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind

by Richard WHITMIRE

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The signs and statistics are undeniable: boys are falling behind in school. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the biggest culprits are not video games, pop culture, or female-dominated schools biased toward girls. The real problem is that boys have been thrust into a bewildering new school environment that demands high-level reading and writing skills long before they


The signs and statistics are undeniable: boys are falling behind in school. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the biggest culprits are not video games, pop culture, or female-dominated schools biased toward girls. The real problem is that boys have been thrust into a bewildering new school environment that demands high-level reading and writing skills long before they are capable of handling them. Lacking the ability to compete, boys fall farther and farther behind. Eventually, the problem gets pushed into college, where close to 60% of the graduates are women. In a time when even cops, construction foremen, and machine operators need post-high school degrees, that’s a problem. Why Boys Fail takes a hard look at how this ominous reality came to be, how it has worsened in recent years, and why attempts to resolve it often devolve into finger-pointing and polarizing politics. But the book also shares some good news. Amidst the alarming proof of failure among boys—around the world—there are also inspiring case studies of schools where something is going right. Each has come up with realistic ways to make sure that every student—male and female—has the tools to succeed in school and later in life. Educators and parents alike will take heart in these promising developments, and heed the book’s call to action—not only to demand solutions but also to help create them for their own students and children.

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Why Boys Fail

Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind
By Richard Whitmire


Copyright © 2010 Richard Whitmire
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8144-2036-2

Chapter One

Discovering the Problem

A quick walk down Main Street in Farmington, Maine, reveals a New England college town cute enough to qualify for central casting. There's the Liquid Sunshine store, which sells long, flowing skirts. Close by is Calico Patch, peddling candles and objets d'art freshmen women buy to adorn their dorm rooms at the University of Maine, Farmington, located only a couple of blocks away. Next comes Outskirts, offering vintage clothing for women. Finally, there is Butterfly Boutique, a purveyor of pricey clothing that senior co-eds purchase for their first real-world job interview.

Within a couple of blocks, you realize what feels odd about the walk through town. Stores in downtown Farmington target only female college students. Not much for the guys to be found anywhere. But what at first appears to be an oversight turns out to be nothing more than business common sense: Two-thirds of the students studying at the Farmington campus are women. Women here dominate both the shopping scene downtown and the leadership positions on campus. They serve as presidents of most of the campus clubs and occupy seven of the eight spots on the student program board that arranges student activities. The male students here don't seem to mind. They think they've achieved dating heaven. "That's one reason I came here," admitted one freshman as he tilted far back in his dorm chair. Surrounded by cardboard boxes stuffed with finger-food snacks and a giant video screen used mostly for video games, he and his four male friends exchange satisfied smiles. Life is sweet, they told me.

The growing majorities of women on college campuses may delight freshman guys, but they trigger worries among others nervously watching the trend. While most colleges aren't as female-concentrated as Farmington, they're moving in that direction, with average graduating classes at four-year colleges approaching 60 percent women. The college graduation rate favoring women shows no sign of abating, with women overtaking men at every level, from associate to Ph.D. The fact that women who enter college are far more likely than their male classmates to earn a degree only worsens the problem. Those growing imbalances leave college officials wrestling with multiple problems: overcrowded women's bathrooms in co-ed dorms, classrooms where only female voices are heard in discussions, and lost tuition from boys who should be attending college.

Most alarmed about the slipping ratios of men on college campuses are marketplace economists, who point out that in the Information Age college has become the new high school. Nearly everyone needs some kind of post-high school training, even those aiming for blue-collar jobs that don't require four-year degrees. "The days are over when you could walk into a paper mill with a high school diploma and run one of the machines," said Patrick Schillinger of the Wisconsin Paper Council. Want to be a bank teller or work behind an airport rental car counter? A generation ago, high school graduates filled those jobs. No longer. At a minimum, tellers need an associate's degree. And those seemingly noncomplex jobs of checking off the little boxes required for renting a car are going to four-year-degree holders. Companies today recognize that these jobs require a level of people skills, writing ability, and basic math competence found only among those with college training. That economic shift is why the Obama administration set a new goal in the summer of 2009 of having all students go to college for at least one year.

In April 2009, in the middle of a brutal recession, California employment experts concluded the state faced a shortage of one million college graduates needed for the workforce in 2025. By that year, a minimum of 41 percent of all jobs will require college degrees while only 35 percent of the state's working-age adults will hold four-year degrees. The U.S. Department of Labor estimated that 80 percent of the fastest-growing jobs of the twenty-first century will require postsecondary education or training. And yet, of every one hundred ninth graders, only sixty-eight will graduate from high school on time, only forty will directly enter college, and only twenty-seven will still be enrolled their sophomore year. Finally, among those one hundred, only eighteen will graduate within six years. And if those figures were sorted by gender, boys would dominate each fallout point. Men need these degrees as much as women, and yet somehow only women are responding logically to the education demands of this new economy. That leaves tens of thousands of otherwise talented boys stalled at the starting gates, unable to win entry-level jobs in the new economy. If anything, the urgency for men to acquire more post-high school training has accelerated. More than 80 percent of those laid off during the global recession that began in 2008 were men. By the spring of 2009, as the recession deepened and the layoffs continued, women became the majority of the workforce.

How could a societal change as significant as boys falling so far behind girls in academic ambitions come about so quietly and quickly? Until that question gets answered, any school interventions drawn up to help boys will be based on little more than guesswork.

Given the lack of federal interest in the boy problems, school leaders are left on their own to discover the problem. Some important clues emerge from their discoveries. In 2001 Kenneth Dragseth, the superintendent of schools in Edina, Minnesota, a wealthy and mostly white suburb of Minneapolis, noticed something odd playing out in the high school academic awards ceremonies he attended. Nearly all the awards, as well as the college scholarships, went to girls. It struck Dragseth as a new phenomenon. Just a few years earlier the boys were pulling down an equal share of the awards. Dragseth ordered an investigation and the next year received a report with these conclusions: Girls made up 65 percent of the honor rolls and won 67 percent of the top-of-the-class rankings. Boys, by contrast, accounted for nine out of every ten school suspensions and more than seven in ten of these students were taking medication for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The Edina investigation failed to pinpoint a cause, but it did offer a clue: 84 percent of the girls said they liked school, compared to 64 percent of the boys. And far more girls than boys reported doing daily homework. In short, Dragseth's survey discovered that schooling agrees more with girls. Edina is not the only wealthy white community to discover that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the boy problems are not limited to African-American boys living in poverty and attending failing schools. Here's a story about another upper-class public school discovering what Dragseth found in his schools.


Glenn "Max" McGee may be a professional educator, but for him, discovering the gender gaps among middle school-age boys was a personal matter. When McGee was serving as state superintendent of schools of Illinois he saw the problem develop with his own two sons. "Their interest in reading fell off around the fifth and sixth grades. The same was happening with their interest in writing and keeping a journal. They were in a good school system and they liked school, but their desire and joy for reading and writing were evaporating. Our oldest had more of an 'attitude' and our youngest was becoming apathetic, and here I was, state superintendent of schools. I remember thinking: 'This can't be my family.'"

McGee's family education problems coincided with a report from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) charging that school districts were neglecting girls, especially in math and science. McGee recalls embracing the report and doing everything he could do to correct what, at the time, appeared to be a major issue. "I was active in trying to close gender gaps in math and science for girls. I spoke on behalf of the AAUW. But all the time I realized we were having these issues with reading and writing with boys."

In 2002 McGee took over as superintendent of the K-8 Wilmette schools along Chicago's high-income North Shore, right on the doorstep of Northwestern University. These schools feed into the famed New Trier High School, which rests high on any top ten list of America's best public high schools. McGee sat down to map out a way to accomplish what he describes as making the great schools there even greater. Based on his own family experience, McGee had a hunch: Let's look at boosting boys' performance. To the Wilmette educators, this was a radical approach. Who thought the boys had any problems?

To carry out the boys investigation McGee needed the help of the Community Review Committee (CRC), a panel of administrators, teachers, and parents that takes on issues day-to-day educators are too busy to tackle. In Wilmette, possibly one of the wealthiest and most education-focused school districts in the United States, these inquiries are taken very seriously. Within the committee there was considerable skepticism about looking at boys as a problem area. In this case, committee members were given a choice: Join the boys "gender study" task force or work on a second investigation into the far less controversial topic of how student progress gets reported to parents. Nearly all the CRC members chose the latter. The boy/girl panel was left with four parents and less than a handful of administrators and teachers. But what a handful it turned out to be. Among the four parents were three past presidents of the CRC.

Cochairing the task force was a father of two boys, an MIT-trained numbers guy with a broad business background currently working in private equity advising. Also on the panel was Diane Fisher, a mother of two boys who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. "There was an enormous amount of resistance to us looking at this," she recalls. "The others saw it as a hot-button issue and they didn't want to use the word 'gender.' They wanted to look at learning differences in general and not make it into a gender issue. I think it was really political discomfort for them. And a number of these parents didn't really believe these gender differences exist. We were like a little band of outlaws."

Overseeing the research was McGee himself, who of course brought along his personal experience as the father of two boys who had watched both boys lose their interest in reading after about fifth grade. And so, after a rocky beginning, the committee got under way. Part of the task force's research included a survey of 270 teachers asking if the teachers thought there was any reason to suspect gender imbalances in the district. Are either boys or girls earning better grades? The response: 85 percent said they were not aware of any gender gaps. Only three teachers speculated that girls might be doing better than boys.

In June 2006 the task force released its 107-page report. In stark contrast to what the teachers thought was happening, the task force found "surprising" gender gaps. In grades five through eight, girls had higher grades than boys in every core subject, including math. "It appears that girls have figured out how to get good grades, and as they experience success, they continue to be rewarded for behaviors that are valued," said the task force. Even more surprising was the finding that the performance gap between boys and girls widened in each of the three years they studied. Plus, most of the problem students were boys. Boys made up the "overwhelming majority" of the discipline referrals and suspensions, the report concluded, along with 71 percent of the special education students.

As it turned out, McGee's hunch about the boys being in trouble was well founded. "What surprised us the most," said the father who cochaired the panel, "is that in every one of the subjects we looked at we found gender gaps in grades, without exception, even in subjects where boys usually test better. Some of the biggest differences we found were in advanced math in junior high, where girls were doing better." Just as surprising were the trend lines. In junior high school, where they could gather four years of data, the grade-point advantage enjoyed by girls had grown in each of the four years. "The grade-point gap grew in all eleven subjects, and it grew significantly in nine of the eleven."

Among the report findings:

* Girls are 30 to 35 percent more likely to earn an A.

* In grades five through eight, girls' grades were higher than boys' across reading, writing, science, and math. In every level of junior high math, girls have outperformed boys, across four years of data and four levels of math.

* On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, girls outperform boys across seven language arts scores.

* Seventy-one percent of the district's special education population is male.

* Boys make up the "overwhelming majority" of discipline referrals.

Keep in mind, the survey of teachers taken before the research indicated they overwhelmingly believed there were no gender gaps. These were the same teachers who were handing out better grades to girls in each of the subjects in each grade. "It was a real surprise," says McGee. "We have terrific students, outstanding parents, and plenty of resources. And yet there are these differences."


Parents there appeared shocked by the report. Nobody thought this could happen in Wilmette. "We have very high-achieving parents," said Fisher, "who serve as strong role models. They provided enriched experiences for these boys since the day they were born. Travel, private tutors, coaches. If you think about it, any check that could have been written to put these boys on the same playing field with the girls was written. All that was done, and yet it still does not change the neurological development reality. If you see this in an affluent district such as Wilmette, how is it for boys who haven't had all these advantages?"

In Wilmette, nearly everyone eventually goes to college, even the slacker boys, which raises the question of whether boys lagging behind in K–12 even matters. The uneven academic track does matter, said the businessman/dad who cochaired the panel. The process of what goes on day to day in classrooms is as important as the product, which is college attendance, he explains. "I see my boys, even in middle school, making choices. Their educational experiences inform those choices. We are nothing more than a cumulative set of those choices. So how educators interact with kids and encourage the development of those choices has profound implications for the ultimate paths they pick." And what he sees is a lot of boys making choices that will limit their future. By choosing to eschew reading and devalue writing, they are removing themselves from the competition for business jobs that involve communicating, writing, client relations, and bringing institutions together to achieve a common interest. In short, they are removing themselves from jobs such as he has held. Women can take those same jobs, but that removes a sizable chunk of society from even joining the competition. "The problem is that as a society we are saying we are going down a path where the education processes have the effect of statistically excluding a portion of the population."

The task force members wondered if other well-off districts were discovering similar gender gaps, but they soon discovered other educators simply weren't looking for them. Most school districts fall into that category. They don't know the extent to which their boys are falling behind because they've never bothered to look. According to the new annual state exams launched to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the boys are indeed falling behind, especially in literacy skills. But if school districts never look, there's no chance they'll find the problem.


Many high school principals are seeing a phenomenon something akin to a fog-induced interstate pileup, in which boys pile up in ninth grade, with many of them never making it as far as tenth grade. This "bulge," as educators call it, appears to have grown out of the school reform movement that dates back to the 1989 governors' summit in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a result of the college push agreed upon at the summit, nearly every ninth grader now gets a verbally drenched curriculum that is supposed to better prepare them for post–high school study.

The governors' goals were perfectly sensible; these are the new realities of the global economy. But a problem soon emerged. By ramping up the literacy demands but failing to give boys the tools they need to meet those demands, the modest, birth-granted verbal advantages enjoyed by girls have widened considerably. Ninth grade is when that problem becomes visible. As school districts raised standards, principals came under pressure to make their schools look better on the state tests. So if a ninth grader is stumbling through math and English, wouldn't it be better to have that student repeat ninth grade? The alternative, having that student fail the state's tenth grade tests and give the school a black eye, is something most principals would prefer to avoid.

Thus was born the bulge, where ninth grade classes run larger than either eighth or tenth grade classes. The bulge numbers are staggering. In 2006 the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) released data measuring the bulge using a simple tool: Compare the size of the eighth grade against the size of the ninth grade. In Florida, the ninth grade was 19 percent larger; in Maryland 17 percent; in Texas 17 percent; in Georgia 16 percent. Not surprisingly, those bulges contain twice as many boys as girls. "This bulge is going to be largely driven by retention in grade and boys are twice as likely to fail as girls," said Joan Lord, director of educational policies for the SREB. "The students are not prepared for high school; they're failing classes and therefore being retained." Due to retentions in previous grades, the boys arrive in ninth grade close to the age when they can legally drop out of school, an age that varies by state from sixteen to nineteen. "At that point many of them are losing motivation, the will to finish. They see that if they wait it out they can quit so they just sort of give up in ninth grade and wait it out," said Lord.


Excerpted from Why Boys Fail by Richard Whitmire Copyright © 2010 by Richard Whitmire. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

RICHARD WHITMIRE is a former editorial writer for USA Today and President of the National Educational Writers Association. A highly recognized and respected education reporter, his commentaries have been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Republic, U.S. News&World Report, Politico, Washington Monthly, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Education Week. He also appeared on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition to discuss boy troubles. He is the author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District.

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